An engineer’s engineer

Steve Hamlen

April 1, 2017

Steve Hamlen catches up with Tony Trapp, executive chairman of Osbit, and subsea industry pioneer who recently won the MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

Tony Trapp Photo from Osbit. 

Tony Trapp is a firm believer in the potential of engineers working as a collective. He built his reputation and a string of businesses on that very philosophy – one which has led to him being awarded the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2017 New Year’s Honours.

His latest engineering company’s name, Osbit, based in northeast England, is derived from the ethos of ‘On Spec, Budget and In Time.’ “We are tiny but we can do almost anything that involves engineering,” Trapp says.

Earthy beginnings

With a true engineer’s conviction that his profession can solve any problem, it seems fitting that engineering skills and equipment from one of the world’s oldest industries sparked the development of the UK’s world-renowned high-tech subsea sector.

“When we started Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD), we were agricultural engineers and we took ploughs and tractors underwater. The idea was that agricultural engineers can do everything as they are people who are trained in mechanical, electrical and civil engineering,” Trapp says.

However, all projects require financial foundations and engineering is no different. “We like to design and build things. You can only design and build things if there is money, so you have to look at where the money is flowing,” he says. “SMD started when I was doing a PhD. My supervisor was Alan Reece and we were dealing with vibratory cutting. JCB (a construction equipment manufacturer) got interested and [Reece] set the company up with the idea of exploring what we were working on.”

North Sea oil

Trapp and SMD’s Magnus cable plough team. Photo from Tony Trapp.

Reece enticed Trapp and Tim Grinsted, all PhDs from Newcastle University, to start SMD. It turned out to be timely; soon after, North Sea oil was discovered and fiber-optics technology was invented.

“Both industries wanted to do a lot of stuff on the seabed and there weren’t any experts on underwater earth moving. Very little was known about it. In agricultural engineering, everyone knew everything about earth moving – it had been going on for thousands of years. So, we were well placed. We had soil tanks and we did experiments at Newcastle University’s agricultural engineering department,” Trapp says.

The engineers converted a JCB mahine into an offshore testing unit. It could be driven along the beach or used in water depths up to 1.5m. The UK government also gave the engineers an £80,000 per year grant, which led to a fruitful meeting when the government sent a grant supervisor who, “just also happened to be head of pipelines for BP.”

BP was developing the Magnus field and wanted to bury their pipelines. The field had seven satellite wells and BP wanted a pipe plough semi-mounted onto a tracked seabed vehicle.

“So, we developed our first pipeline plough. Then, they wanted to bury cables so we developed our first cable plough, as well as our first backfill plough – all for BP. We had a very nice arrangement where you could, if you were clever, come up with ideas and patent them, because nobody had worked in this field. So, working for BP, we came to an agreement where BP Ventures owned the patents and we had half of the royalties, which wasn’t so well known. So, if anyone wanted to infringe those patents they could discuss that with BP, but we got the royalties.”

This research led to interest from Brown & Root – resulting in SMD making its first vessel hauled offshore pipeline plough (PL1).

In 1997, after 19 years, Trapp left SMD and set up The Engineering Business (EB). In 2010, Trapp founded Osbit, which is also owned and run by engineers. Osbit is also a big believer in new talent and has three students from The University of Edinburgh on six-month placements, with potential to be offered to join Osbit as graduates.

“If you put people in the right environment, then they do fantastic things. While customers are the core of our activity, we are actually a powerful training organization; over my 35 to 40 years we have taken on hundreds of graduates,” Trapp says.

Growth plans

Trapp in the lab. Photo from Tony Trapp.

Trapp has gained much business experience, but has always liked to keep his mind open to flexibility.

“I never had a business plan. I do not know how you have a business plan, actually. If you set up a two-year plan, within no time, it will look very different. But, I did have a growth plan. I was 52 when we started EB and we had a 10-year plan. We wanted to build a team of sensible engineers and do interesting stuff that might change the world, have some fun and realize some money,” he added.

Osbit has now finished its sixth year, with a solid performance. Indeed, despite the industry downturn, Osbit grew turnover by 33%, to nearly £10 million in the 2015/2016 financial year, thanks to a 51% boost in export activity and 10% rise on UK sales.